An insider’s guide to beach camping on Shell Key

Campers enjoy the tranquility at Shell Key. Camping areas are primitive and fires are permitted.
Campers enjoy the tranquility at Shell Key. Camping areas are primitive and fires are permitted.
[Photo courtesy of Lia Nydes]

Working several part-time jobs after graduating college seems to be increasingly common. With the fluctuating schedules and multiple tax forms also comes the benefit of having random days off during the week to experience wild areas in Florida when no one is around.

On one such day I made up my mind to go camping. The goal: somewhere with minimal driving and primitive camping — no bathrooms, no drinking water and haul out all trash. Shell Key in Tierra Verde fit the description.

One of Pinellas County's largest barrier islands, Shell Key is home to an abundance of sensitive marine habitat and wildlife. A portion of the island is an 1,800-acre preserve. The beach of the preserve is prohibited to public use, protecting wildlife and, in particular, nesting shorebirds.

At around 2 p.m., my friend Jade and I strapped our survival needs onto the front of our tandem kayaks — we both have a few years experience and I am canoe trained through Pathfinder outdoor education — and pushed off from the Fort De Soto boat ramp. We paddled vigorously for about an hour before realizing we took the first wrong turn possible. It was getting late, and we were getting a little cold and worried. Temps were in the high 70s when we started, then dipped into the 60s at night.

I Google-mapped our location and we redirected into the setting light as dolphins hunted for their dinner nearby. Paddling up to the island we were pleasantly surprised by a flock of around 60 white pelicans floating in the calm water. When our kayaks touched land, I was flooded with the feeling of relief and accomplishment.

One of the many wonderful aspects of camping on Shell Key is that campfires can be built right on the beach (with the exception of sea turtle nesting season). Digging a hole in the sand, we created a fire and relaxed from the paddle.

Looking out across the darkening waters, no evidence of human existence could be seen. As the last of the light left the sky and stars started to peek through the clouds, we heard a release of water and air nearby. A dolphin swam up and down the beach, adding to the mystical wonder of the experience.

My advice to anyone wanting to go camping in Florida is there will always be a reason not to go. Push aside life's obligations and take the plunge of adventure. If you are seeking camping past the RV hookups and the fluorescent lit bathrooms, choose primitive sites and let your adventure begin.

Lia Nydes is an Eckerd College grad who works part time for Pathfinder Outdoor education, facilitating activities such as tree climbing, canoeing and team-building challenges. She also works for Carlton Ward Jr. Photography Gallery, and is a freelance photographer and nature explorer. She went camping on Shell Key in Pinellas County and wrote about the experience.